“Kisi dushman ki maut ki baat ho, maut to maut hoti hai, khush nahi hona chahiye. (Death, even of an enemy, is never a reason to be happy. It shouldn’t be). He got the punishment he deserved for his deeds,” says a soft spoken Harpreet K Rai, on the death sentence to the killer of her brother, Harris County Deputy Sheriff Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal who was killed in the line of duty in 2019.
Dhaliwal, the first turbaned Indian American Sikh police officer in Texas, was murdered while conducting a routine mid-day traffic stop. His killer, Robert Solis, 50, was found guilty of capital murder by a jury in Houston’s Harris County Court and sentenced to death on 26 October 2022.
“What happened was as clear as water. It could not have been any more painful for us. Humne Babaji ko ardas kiya ki aapko jo theek lage wo karo. Hum log kisi ka bura nahi sochte (We had left the outcome to God). There were two choices, one was life prison without parole and the other death. Wahe Guru ne khud hi usko punishment diya (Wahe Guru punished him for his deeds),” says Harpreet as she talks about the death sentence awarded to Solis.
Dhaliwal, 42, had left behind an elderly father, a young wife, and three little children. Talking to The Quint, Harpreet says her ‘Sikhi’ faith kept her and her family going for the last three difficult years.
‘Always Ready to Help, Had Friends in Every City’: Who Was Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal?
Deputy Sheriff Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal had been a law enforcement officer with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for 10 years.
Along with being the agency’s first Sikh deputy, he was considered a trailblazer as Texas’s first deputy sheriff to be permitted to carry articles of faith on duty – a turban and beard in uniform – changing the policy for others to follow.
The grant by the third-largest sheriff’s department in the United States made national headlines in 2015.
“He chose blue turban to go with the blue uniform. That was the celebration, a big celebration. He was clean shaven when he joined the department. He wanted people to understand Sikhi, his faith, especially after 9/11. He requested to be allowed to wear a turban and beard. The Sheriff’s office worked hard to get an approval."Harpreet recalls with pride.
She adds, “Babaji ki kripa thi to ho gaya (By God’s grace, it happened).”
Dhaliwal’s calling of faith and public service drove him towards a career in uniform in 2009, giving up his lucrative trucking business, after he heard the then-sheriff speak at the Sikh National Center, a Houston gurdwara his family attends.
“There was an incident in which a Sikh was incorrectly thought to be a criminal by the police on seeing a kirpan on him (the Sikh family had called for help as their home had been burgled). When leaders from our community met the sheriff to explain the religious significance of the kirpan, he visited our gurdwara to understand further. I saw Sandeep listening intently as the sheriff called on our youth to rise to join law enforcement. He consulted Papa when he got home, who agreed. Babaji ke saamne mind bana liya usne and he was hired,”remembers Harpreet.
“Sandeep had the right physique and personality. He used to exercise regularly. His friendly and helpful personality made everyone listen,” she adds.
Dhaliwal was promoted in 2015, becoming the first Sikh deputy in Harris County.
She fondly recalls, “I am the oldest, so I was like a mother to him. He often used this phrase to begin a sentence – ‘let me tell you something.’ And I would respond in jest- apni bossi na jhaar yahan par, wo apne sheriff office mein ja kar jhaar!” (Don’t you act bossy around here. Take that to your Sheriff’s office).
Recalling her brother’s always-ready-to-help attitude, Harpreet recollects, “Anytime, help was needed in the 3-4 gurdwaras of this area, he was there. He assisted residents after a hurricane by bringing in building supplies from other states. He went to Puerto Rico to help when a hurricane hit.”
He had lot of friends in many cities across the country, how many brothers he has left behind, says the sister.
And above all, he was a fun father and uncle, reminisces Harpreet.
"Sandeep loved kids. Hamare teeno bhai-behenon ke bachchon ko pata hi nahi hain ki wo cousins hain (our siblings’ kids don’t feel like they are cousins). He spent weekends with them, summers with them in the pool and took them for bike-rides and movies.”Harpreet
Sandeep’s memory is kept alive by friends and family, who gather every year on his birthday to celebrate his life.
“We invite his friends over on his birthday. We get his favourite tres liches cake. We are vegetarians and he was too. We make his favourite food that day. He loved chana-puri, veg biryani, and custard. His colleagues from the Sheriff’s office also join us,” shares Harpreet.
‘A Young Life Lost’: The Incident and the Trial
On 27 September 2019, Dhaliwal was conducting a routine mid-day traffic stop in a residential neighbourhood in northwest Houston when he stopped Solis.
As Deputy Dhaliwal was walking back to his patrol car, he was shot multiple times from the back.
“…Basically just shot him in a very ruthless, cold-blooded way,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez in 2019.
Solis had an outstanding warrant for violating his parole agreement at the time of the incident, and prosecutors argued that he intentional shot dead Dhaliwal because feared going back to jail.
Dhaliwal’s two sisters, their husbands, and members of the extended family were in the court daily during the trial which lasted for a little more than two weeks, having to endure watching the body camera video of him being shot down. A sobbing Harpreet Rai was the last to testify.
The unanimous jury took only 35 minutes to make their decision.
When the sentencing was being read, Harpreet says they all held each other’s hands tightly.
“Humein kisi ki life lene ka koi haq nahi hai, use bhi nahi tha. Usne kaise kiya? Wo ek ya do dafa soch leta ki mein kya karne jaa raha hun. Hamari life upside down kar ke rakh di (Who are we to want to take someone’s life? We have no right to do so, and he had no right too. How we wish that he would have at least thought for a moment about what he was going to go. He turned our life upside down, forever),"says Harpreet, her voice quivering, yet calm.
There was a significant amount of media attention on the case. The vindicated, yet grieving family was sombre. There was a lot of discussion in the media but it was not a celebration for us, shares Harpreet.
The sisters reached home to inform their elderly father who had seen the news break on TV. “Papa was extremely quiet. This couldn’t have been a moment of happiness for him. He is not like that. We thought Papa did not want to talk about it,” says Harpreet of the day of the verdict.
The family had decided to keep their elderly father away from the court to protect him from further agony. “We decided that Papa should stay at home when we used to go for the hearings. Solis used to be in the court, and we didn’t want Papa to see him,” she says.
The family visited their local gurdwara in the evening, where community members acknowledged that justice was delivered. “Many people at the gurdwara came up to us, sharing they had heard the news on TV. They expressed their satisfaction that justice was delivered,” Harpreet adds.
“Lekin hamara to itna honhar bachcha le liya usne (But our young promising child was taken from us).”Harpreet
‘Born in India’: The Family
The family including Deputy Dhaliwal’s father, wife and three young children, his two sisters and their families, along with a large extended family are based in the Houston area of Texas.
Their father Pyara Dhaliwal came to the US in the 1980s, and was followed by the family a few years later, says Harpreet.
“We were all born in India. We came to the US in 1993. Papa was already here working very hard as a shipping supervisor in a paint company. I had completed college in Punjab when we moved. Sandeep and my younger sister started high school here. We have been in the Houston area from beginning and a have large, supportive family here. Mom was a cancer patient and she passed away in 2018. After his college, Sandeep launched his businesses, before joining law enforcement,” she says.
The bond between the brother and sister grew deeper after their mother’s passing.
Harpreet, who says she misses her brother’s enthusiasm for life, adds, “Sandeep was always smiling. His colleagues recall that about him. He was always motivated. Never said no to anyone. We look at his pictures and remember the way he spoke, his walk, his nature, it all reflected humility and strength. His theory was – work hard and live a good life, iss country mein app wo kar sakte ho (You can do that in this country).”
‘Never Had to Beg for Justice’
Their adopted country, the United States, offered Dhaliwal family a good life and helped them get justice for their son, says sister Harpreet in gratitude.
“We never had to beg for justice. Sandeep’s sheriff department and the government put the entire investigation and case together. He was very hardworking and honest that they worked to get justice for him,” she says.
To honour the deputy, a US post office in West Houston has been named after him.
His sister Harpreet says the family hoped that his country of birth [India] too could have recognised him as his adopted homeland did.
“His service was recognised in the US by having a post office, a park and road-sign named in his honour,” she says.
She adds, “India mein kuch nahi hua, jahan ki mitti use lagi thi pehle, unhone uske liye kuch bhi nahi kiya. We are not asking for something, but just that unka bachcha tha wo (The country of his birth was not as thoughtful. Our family is not demanding anything but after all, he was a son of their soil too).